A quiet force in the world of music
THE popular notion is that without Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, there wouldn’t have been rock ‘n’ roll. But it may be closer to the truth to say there wouldn’t have been rock ‘n’ roll without Ahmet Ertegun.
The co-founder of Atlantic Records loved to say he was just lucky to have worked with such landmark artists as Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin and Cream.
Yet everyone who has cared about pop music over the last half-century should feel fortunate to have had Ertegun. The son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S., he made contributions to the American pop scene that were as passionate and irreplaceable as any of the artists on his label.
Generations of music entrepreneurs and executives -- David Geffen, Chris Blackwell, Doug Morris, Jimmy Iovine and countless others -- have cited him as a hero and role model.
Through it all, Ertegun, a shy, sophisticated man with a great appreciation for art, carried himself with dignity and humility.
He did few interviews because he felt the spotlight should always be on the musicians, but I managed to get him to sit down a few times to talk about building Atlantic. His eyes twinkled as he talked about first hearing Eric Clapton in London in the mid-'60s, or about watching Bobby Darin grow from the novelty of “Splish Splash” to the mainstream boldness of “Mack the Knife.”
The quality that struck me most was his genuine respect for the music and the musicians.
Most owners of R&B; record companies in the ‘50s were opportunists -- often record store owners or jukebox operators who started labels in hopes of picking up some extra bucks. They had little respect for artists or, in many cases, the music.
Along with Sam Phillips, who launched Elvis Presley on Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., Ertegun helped guide artists to a musical vision that he felt was both exciting and could serve as a bridge to what he felt so keenly from his foreign background was a missing piece of the American dream: racial equality.
Ertegun and his older brother, Nesuhi, who also had a prominent career in the music business, grew up with a love of jazz.
As youngsters in London, they saw Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and their father later hosted jazz musicians, black and white, at the embassy in Washington, a move that raised some eyebrows in that segregated era. In his teens, Ahmet Ertegun sponsored what was believed to be the first integrated jazz concert in Washington.
Indeed, he got so caught up in the music world that he passed up a career in the diplomatic service to start a record company with Herb Abramson in New York in the late ‘40s.
Like Phillips in Memphis, Ertegun didn’t just see the blues and R&B; sounds of the day as a novelty. He sensed a spirit so liberating that it could appeal to listeners of all races.
After working with jazz and R&B; artists from the New York area, Ertegun was drawn increasingly to the rawer sound coming from the South. But most of the New York artists he came across resisted the blues.
“We had urban, very sophisticated musicians who came out of the big bands and singers who were straight pop singers, imitating Billy Eckstine or singing standards,” he once told me.
“What we did was take the best singers we could find and force them to play soul music. As a result of that, we came out with a sound which was halfway toward funk.”
As the label’s reputation grew, Ertegun began finding singers, including Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter, who had the blues and gospel instincts to sing soul music on their own.
The result was hit recordings that helped reshape the boundaries of American pop -- records such as Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say,” the Drifters’ “Money Honey” and the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak.”
Soon, Atlantic -- along with Sun Records and the Chess Brothers’ Chess Records in Chicago -- was at the creative center of the music business, and major labels started raiding Ertegun’s talent roster. When Charles, Darin and McPhatter all left Atlantic in the late ‘50s, Ertegun thought the company was finished. But he and his gifted Atlantic team, including producer Jerry Wexler, went on to greater heights in the ‘60s with Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Wilson Pickett and others.
Over the years, the Atlantic roster would include such other distinguished artists as Buffalo Springfield, the Bee Gees, Dusty Springfield, the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
To no one’s surprise, Ertegun was one of the first nonmusicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he avoided most award ceremonies. He agreed to host Atlantic’s 50th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1998 only because the event raised millions for charity.
The lineup that night included more than two dozen artists, but the real draw was Led Zeppelin, and the capacity crowd was impatient to see the British band by the time Ertegun walked on stage around midnight to accept an award. You could hear jeers and shouts of “Zeppelin, Zeppelin.”
It was an awkward moment for this giant of the music business. But Ertegun wasn’t at all downbeat as he stood backstage later.
“They were right,” he said with his characteristic grace. “They came here to hear music -- not see some old man accept an award.... It’s the music that matters. Fifty years from now, people will still be listening to Led Zeppelin. They won’t even remember me.”
Ertegun was wrong.
The music community will always treasure him.
Robert Hilburn was The Times’ pop music critic for nearly 40 years until his retirement in January.